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Matinee: 'George Eastman House: Picture Perfect' Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

23 November 2013

Saturday matinees long ago let us escape from the ordinary world to the island of the Swiss Family Robinson or the mutinous decks of the Bounty. Why not, we thought, escape the usual fare here with Saturday matinees of our favorite photography films?

So we're pleased to present the ninth in our series of Saturday matinees today: George Eastman House: Picture Perfect.

This 2003 film purports to tell the story of a museum, the George Eastman House, famous for its photographic collection. But it's also the story of a company, Kodak, and of the man who built that company and, for that matter, of the history of photography.

So it might as well just be called Photography 101. In just 26 minutes it covers the invention of the art and its early development. Highlights include some famous old photos and one-of-a-kind cameras, including Ansel Adams' first camera (a used Brownie). It even squeezes in the invention of movies (with clips of Eastman and Edison fooling around).

There isn't a lesson in here you'll want to skip. If you didn't know about it, you'll be glad you do and if you do know about it, you'll enjoy seeing it again.

The museum itself, which recently appointed Lisa Hostetler as curator, was originally Eastman's home and is open to the public. The living quarters have been restored and you are free to roam through the rooms, including the one in which Eastman ended his life. There's also gallery space and a historical display worth a few minutes.

PBS did a nice presentation on Eastman's life for its American Experience series. You can find it on YouTube as George Eastman: The Wizard of Photography in three parts.

When we travel to Rochester, we always try to make the short drive to East Avenue to visit the Eastman House. George is long gone and it seems Kodak itself thinks its work also "has been done." But Eastman House remains a vibrant and inspiring spot.

In July 2010 we visited the museum and wrote the following review of the Colorama exhibit. It's the kind of thing we love about Eastman House.

The Colorama Story: Still Dreaming Big

Twenty years ago the last Colorama was taken down from New York City's Grand Central Terminal after a four decade run. But through Oct. 17 you can see more of them in one place than ever before at the George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y.

We took the tour earlier this week and were just as impressed with the technology used to make them as we were with the images themselves. But one question kept popping up to us. Just what can these giant photo murals of another era teach us today?


Colorama was the name given the world's largest photographs -- enormous color transparencies displayed over the east balcony of Grand Central Terminal for 40 years in the latter half of the last century.

And by enormous, we're not kidding. They were 18x60 feet.

Every three weeks starting in 1950 and ending only with the 1990 renovation of Grand Central, Kodak would install a new 18x60-foot image.


In the course of their 40-year run, Coloramas evolved through a series of technological changes.

Kodak had projected color slides, a recent innovation, to very large sizes for its Cavalcade of Color at the 1939 World's Fair in New York. But Grand Central Terminal, New York's largest interior space, was too bright for projection. The solution was to light the transparencies from behind.

That wasn't the only hurdle, though.

The maximum possible enlargement at the time was 45x, from 5 inches to 18 feet. The space required more, though, so the Colorama team devised a three-panel display with a central image 18 feet high and 36 feet wide with a pair of 12-foot wide verticals on either side. The full-size 18x60 format came later.

The first Coloramas were made using large format 8x10 view cameras loaded with 18-inch wide color negative film. Within two years large but collapsible wooden Deardorff banquet cameras using 8x20-inch film were used to produce panoramic images.

But by 1970, the camera film size was reduced to half that size with no loss in image quality. And in 1977, 35mm Kodachrome was used to make a full-size Colorama transparency at 500x enlargement. An SLR was first used in 1986.

Quite a few famous photographers -- Ansel Adams, Ernest Hass and Eliot Porter among them -- were among the Colorama team but 75 percent of the images were shot by Kodak staff photographers working in eight-man teams and often using family members as models. Kodak technicians processed the film and assembled the Coloramas using Kodak materials and equipment.

The transparencies were produced at Kodak Park in Rochester. A custom-built enlarger exposed Ektacolor print film through a standard Kodak enlarging lens using a 1,000-watt lamp. The unexposed print film was supported on a large easel as the enlarger itself moved horizontally on a track making multiple exposures of 30 seconds each on the film. About 450 feet of print film were used for both the test strips and panels for each 18x60-foot transparency.

The Ektacolor film strips were 20 feet long and 19 inches wide, requiring 41 panels for each Colorama, spliced together with transparent tape. Later they were replaced with a 40-inch wide print film requiring just 20 panels. And by March 1987, six-foot wide Kodak Duratrans was used.

Processed film was unrolled across a 6x20-foot light table for retouching. The final touch was an aqueous matte spray applied to reduce surface reflections at Grand Central Terminal.

Kodak conducted a final inspection of each Colorama in an unused employee swimming pool where the images were also hung to dry. After passing inspection, they were rolled up on a 20-foot spool and shipped overnight to New York City.

Each new Colorama arrived at Grand Central before dawn, just after the crew had removed the previous one, which had been on display the usual three weeks. The new spool was raised to a vertical angle and locked onto a track. Then it was slowly unrolled, like a horizontal window shade. Every six inches, the crew hooked springs to the film's metal-reinforced grommets to hold it taut.


The aspect ratio of a Colorama was 30:9, a challenging assignment, especially considering Kodak wanted its orange and red colors in the shot, too.

Things "in rows" were a popular subject: tulips, midshipmen, choir boys, fighter jets, wheat fields. And landscapes: Niagra Falls, the Grand Canyon, the Brooklyn Bridge. The holidays were observed as well: Memorial Day, Independence Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas.

But even giraffes at the San Diego Zoo managed to get in the picture (bending down) and a row of five water-skiers stretched nicely across the frame, too.

The rules were simple.

"You are here to promote photography," Kodak Vice President Adolph Stuber told his staff. "Talk photography first -- Kodak next." Each Colorama, he said, should convince the viewer they could have made "the same wonderful photo."

Except for the one black and white of the moon taken by the Lunar Orbiter.

But most of the images on display are familiar family scenes. In fact, Norman Rockwell was the art director for one Colorama titled "Closing up a Summer Cottage." Every character matters in these posed pieces. An approach that was probably just the ticket for the half million commuters a day that passed by them.

There's almost always someone in the shot with a camera, too. One observer whose job is to capture the moment in a photo.

"The Coloramas taught us not only what to photograph," Curator Alison Nordstrom explains, "but how to see the world as though it were a photograph." Kodak's goal was to popularize the idea of taking color photographs all the time, not just on major occasions.

Oddly enough every Instamatic (introduced in 1963) seemed to have a flash cube attached (even in bright sunlight). And some of the Coloramas featured Kodak movie cameras rather than still cameras.


Kodak kept all 565 camera images, recently donating them to the George Eastman House in Rochester. Thirty-six of them are on display there now, reproduced as 6.5-foot long panels.

Modern digicam owners will recognize the oversaturated colors "deeper and brighter than in the real world," as Nordstrom put it.

The digital inkjet prints were produced by the Buffalo prepress house Net/W Imagery. The prints were made from digital scans of the original 6x18-inch color transparencies. Jodean Bifoss did the "substantial" digital restorations.

So Coloramas have even made it into the digital age.


Now that they're here, what can we learn from them?

Fascinating as the technology is, it's the images themselves that have the most to teach us. Curator Nordstrom suggests, "Like pentimenti, the ghosts of Colorama persist in our collective consciousness, continuing to shape how and what we see and desire, and decorating still the walls of some lost and immaterial place that remains longed-for and imperfectly recalled."

Today the Coloramas don't sell Instamatics. They remind us in tableaus as classic as cave drawings, Egyptian obelisks, Grecian urns or Etruscan paintings what really matters to us.

They were big dreams in vivid color then and they are still what we dream of today.

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